Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Welcome to the World of Living History: Five (+) Senses Through Time

~Updated January 2018~

With the 'anniversary' of the "Back to the Future" future date of October 21, 2015 only a few years ago, there has been continuous discussions in the media and at gatherings about time-traveling to both the past and to the future and whether or not it could possibly ever take place. Well, we all know that at this point in time, to literally visit anywhere but the now is impossible.
But a few of us in the reenacting world may an extent...for we have our own Delorean that also includes a pretty powerful flux capacitor.
And we don't need plutonium from the middle east to get it working.
It's simply called living history.
But to accomplish this time-travel phenomena can prove to be fruitless. Fruitless, unless...well, let me explain...
As the moon and the stars call the order
inside my tides dance the ebb and sway...
Astound is the only word I can think of to describe the opportunities and adventures that arise when one time-travels to the past via living history. Unlike the average modern visitor who attends a reenactment - or even a more mainstream reenactor who likes to 'camp in funny clothes' - a living historian, if they are doing it right, can experience, in a first-hand sort of way, a full sensurround of being there.
You know...that feeling of I am a very real sort of way.
No, I've not lost my senses. I've expanded them.
Where else but through living history can I be a contemporary of and *actually* meet Abraham Lincoln or maybe Ben Franklin? Yeah, sure, these are modern people portraying long-dead ancestors of America's past, but the two men I know who portray the former President and the Founding Father do so in such a manner, because of their intense study of detail on each, that one feels as if they have actually met the men being represented.
And as one of their contemporaries, I am drawn into their world.
That, my friend, is something that can be difficult to describe - to be drawn into their world. 
It was a dark world...
To become part of the past, one must intensely research the past, for it is much more than the lite fluff written in so many history books about "the way they used to live back then." It's also much more than the major news events of the day such as the Battle of Gettysburg or the Boston Massacre. It's the smaller particulars like the type of eating utensils used, what it was like to travel in pre-automobile days, how dark was their home in the evening with only a candle or an oil lamp for light, what kinds of natural dyes were used to color wool, what they ate for breakfast, and even their verbiage, for the words they used can bring the past to life in a very real way. It also means looking at the world through the eyes and mind of the past, not with your present discriminations or biases, which can be quite difficult, or nearly impossible, for some. And it means understanding the everyday life of times gone by, in detail, such as what was mentioned above and how it plays in your period life.
A interesting and pretty good example of knowing and showing the minute details of times past occurs every fall during our harvest presentation during a local reenactment and I present apple varieties of the 18th and 19th centuries in a display at the fall harvest reenactments we take part in.
Apples? Really??
Yes, for the people of 1860 would have known about their food and drink, just as we do today, including something as simple as apples.
And the modern visitors were very interested - much more than I anticipated! Fascinated even!
But all of this helps to recreate the world of bygone days like little else can - the minute specifics.
With the addition of how I try to accomplish this form of time travel, I'd like to also show here a few of the photos I have depicting life in the past. Some you may have seen before, and a few recent ones you have not (unless you're my Facebook friend!), but all will include a description/commentary by yours truly.
I hope you enjoy them.

Let's begin with the sensurround I spoke of earlier:
I once wrote a posting here about the utilization of our five senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste to greatly enhance our reenactments.
Of course, the first thing that initially brings us to the past is our sight. Just seeing men in top hats and the ladies in their hoop skirts evokes times gone by like little else can:
A scene right out of the 1860s: top hat, straw hat, bonnet, hoop skirt...
..or right out of the 1770s when in cocked hat, flat straw hats, caps, knee breeches, and buckled shoes.
I would like to think that upon seeing the above photos, you realize that you are not looking at people from the 21st century, and that hopefully it invokes an initial historical reaction.
One of the very cool things that happened while a few of us were dressed in our colonial clothing at Greenfield Village - on our reenactment or anything - was when we had a family of visitors from India now living here in Michigan who, upon seeing us, ran eagerly up to where we were and asked excitedly if we would pose for a picture with them. Of course we said yes, and they all took turns posing with us, individually and as a group. One of the older men in the group said to me (in a thick broken English accent), "You are America! Thank you!"
Do you know great and how truly touched that made me feel? I was just so very proud and patriotic. I seriously had tears.
That's what it's all about. That's the sense of sight in action.

Nearly as important as sight is the sense of sound.
Here, listen to this very short video clip:
What you have just heard was...the past; you just heard the sounds of horses hooves as they crossed a bridge that is nearly 200 years old. The very same sounds that people heard when Andrew Jackson was president, when the Civil War was raging, and when Billy the Kid roamed the west.
You heard history.
Here, let's try it again, only this time from the ticking and gonging of a clock from the 1880s:
Again, hearing history as our ancestors heard it.
Inside the old (1872) school house near where I live there is a hundred year old piano. Now, if you've ever heard these old instruments, there is a very different tonality in comparison to more modern pianos. And to hear this inside a room from the 19th century is almost eerie, like the past is present, but in an other-worldly way; the walls reverberating and bouncing back the sounds of another era.
To take the importance of sound even further: when the producers made the 2012 movie "Lincoln" starring Daniel Day Lewis as our 16th President, they went to great extremes to get the sounds of the past just right. But in order to make this movie come alive, the film makers actually used original sounds to give it that note of accuracy. For instance, the pocket watch Mr. Lewis (as Lincoln) uses in the film is a prop. But the sound you hear coming from it is not. That's because the sound man, Ben Burtt, recorded the ticking of one of the real time pieces Abraham Lincoln owned.
But that's not all...
The ringing of the steeple bell from St. John's Episcopal Church, of which our 16th President attended often, is heard as well, along with the sound of the his shoes hitting the church floor boards - the very same that Lincoln walked upon 150 years ago. The sound techs went as far as to even record the sound Lincoln’s pew made as he sat down and got up.
But there's still more:
In the executive office of the White House, there is a clock that's been there since the time of Andrew Jackson, and the sound of that clock is used in many office scenes. Other sound effects from the White House include door latches and the opening and closing and the knocking upon those doors - the very same doors when Lincoln was there.
But the capper may be having the opportunity to hear the squeaks from the springs of the original carriage that took the President and his wife to the Ford Theater on the evening of April 14, 1865.
The importance of sound to take one back in time cannot be overstated. 
Turn your cell phones off, please. Thank you.

Now comes "touch."
More often than not, DO NOT TOUCH signs are placed throughout museums everywhere, and for good reason: human oils can effectively ruin or destroy historic pieces, whether they are made from fabric or wood.
Just by looking, one can tell the ceiling 
beams that Samuel Daggett himself 
hewed by hand back in the mid-1700s 
has a texture not like what you can 
feel today.
But there are plenty of items from the past that have been replicated, whether they are paper (I have a very good copy of the Declaration of Independence that looks like the real deal), fabric (our period clothing is about as close as one could get to 18th and 19th century clothing as can possibly be, especially when period undergarments are included), and wood (there are plenty of items that have been duplicated from originals made centuries ago, as well as old wood floors to walk upon).
Then there are the moments when one can visit an open air museum such as Greenfield Village, Colonial Williamsburg, or Old Sturbridge Village, and actually feel the ancient wood of a covered bridge built in 1832, a farm and barn from the 1880s, or the wooden door of a home from the 1750s.
I am inside an actual home built in the mid-18th century - quite a rarity here in Michigan  (it's a transplanted building).
To add to the experience, I wore my colonial (1770s-era) clothing, so not only am I seeing, hearing, and touching, but feeling (sensation) as well. I can even add the heat from the fireplace as a part of touch!

(No, I did not put this piece of wood into the fire. This is a posed photo. I would not do something like this for I realize and understand it is against the rules of the Village.
I just want to clarify that.)
Again, it's these little things that are given nary a thought but were so important in everyday life past that can be brought to the present.

Next up on the list of senses is "smell."
Smell, to many, may not seem as important, but I think you'll see just how relevant to living history it actually is. For instance, when we step into the oil-lamp lit mid-19th century Waterloo Farm, one can smell the scent of paraffin from said oil lamps.
And every year, on the day after Thanksgiving, I take a ride to Greenfield Village and spend much of my time over at the 1880s Firestone Farm, where a reenactment of a post-Civil War Thanksgiving takes place. As I step through the side door into the kitchen, the hustle and bustle of the ladies of the house, scurrying about preparing a feast of thanks, catches your sense of sight and sound initially, but then the enticing aroma of the meal fills your sense of smell to its fullest:
Roasted blue slate turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, fried sauerkraut, carrots, white bread, mashed squash, two types of pickles, canned peaches, cranberries, and, somewhere out of the picture is a mincemeat pie and a pumpkin pie.
Can you smell it?
Oh man!!! Talk about a tease!
For obvious reasons, visitors are not allowed to eat the food cooked there on the coal burning cast-iron stove, but we can eat the historic food that is served at the 1831 Eagle Tavern, an authentic inn that is now a period restaurant located elsewhere in the Village.
However, we are living historians, therefore we have the means and opportunity to have our own period meal, which we were able to do one November at Waterloo farm.
As the food cooked on the period stove, I knew this time I could actually enjoy it rather than drool at the aroma.
All of this leads us directly to the sense of "taste":
Here was an interesting ordeal that I rather enjoyed very much: dinner on a 19th century farm.
Yes, you see 21st century folk sitting with my wife and I and our two "daughters." The two modern couples paid to have a meal in the past - to spend a day and evening at the 1860s Waterloo farm. This included a traditional meal of ham, potatoes, cabbage with bacon, greens, beets and other vegetables, apple butter, marmalade, bread, cider and sweet cider...all so very good! And in such a beautiful period setting of an oil lamp-lit 19th century farm.
Then at Christmas time we do an immersion scenario for touring groups at Historic Fort Wayne. This is called Christmas at the Fort, and it's here where we have done some of our very best 1st person and immersion. It's here where we create an 1860s family/home structure, including servants, and everyone plays their role to such realism that, outside of the touring visitors, we almost believe we are truly there. This six to eight hour engulfment includes period conversations and discussions, decorating, entertainment - just as it would have been done over 150 years ago.
We even include a Christmas Eve feast:
Yes, you see two servant girls meeting our every need. We were portraying a Christmas visit at 'my sister's' home in the city, who's husband had done well for himself in the retail trade. This was as "there" as we've ever been, I believe. Everything went as it should.
Is it perfect? No, but we certainly give it our best shot, and I like to think that we do the past right.

Now with sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste, you are nearly "there." But not quite.
I have concluded that experience should be a sort of sixth sense, if the possibility is there. And, at times, it is. I, quite often, portray a farmer, whether at a reenactment or at a paid presentation, and I have researched - and continue to research - as much about a mid-19th century farmer's life as I can, including not only his daily activities by season out in the fields, but his life at home with wife and kids.
Everyday life.
Not long ago I had what was, to me, the experience of a lifetime: I got to plow behind a team of horses...while wearing period clothing! 
Plowing behind a team of horses: this takes living history to another level.
I was told that there are very few Americans alive today that have actually done this; definitely some of the old farmers who are still around, but mainly nowadays it's those who work in living history (there's that term again!) that have experienced this once very common chore.
And now I can say I am one of them.
I was told I didn't do too bad, which made me feel pretty good. My greatest fear was to make a fool of myself. That didn't happen, thank God! Of course, I had an awesome teacher with Mr. Opp!
I experienced it. Just as some have slept in an old home on a rope bed. Just as some have prepared full meals on a wood burning or coal burning stove.
And that really means a lot when one does living history, for those who experience it can explain to visitors the process and how it felt.
None of this would mean nearly as much, however, without the period clothing. To feel what our ancestors felt - to have this sensurround sensation - accurate period clothing is an absolute must. Plowing would not have been the same, or obviously looked the same without the proper clothing.
Proper clothing - inside and out.
I've researched what farmers of the period wore and put together an outfit that works very well. I mean, it would be kind of silly for me to be plowing while wearing my Sunday best, with top hat and all, right? So choosing the correct clothing for your living history excursion and impression should also be top priority.

One of the other very cool things about time-traveling via living history are the people you get to meet and the events you can witness.
Recognize this guy?
No---not the guy on the right - - - the one on the left.
Yup---that's none other than our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. And, yeah, that's me shaking his hand.
It's not everyone who gets to meet our 16th President. 
Or watch as he inspects Civil War soldiers...
Or to have him come to your home.

To have such an honorable man as President Lincoln come and visit you at your house is something that doesn't happen very often...unless you are a living historian. And then to have him sit in a chair very similar to the one he sat in at the Ford Theater...okay - that is kind of, allegorical the word I'm looking for?
Or creepy...?

Here I am with Senator Jacob Howard of Michigan.
Senator Howard, by working closely with President Lincoln, was instrumental in getting the 13th amendment, abolishing slavery, into the United States Constitution.
Again - to meet such an important man of history is an honor.

Here are two of my friends, Carolyn on the left and Jeri on the right, flanking the eventual Father of our Country, General George Washington. Now, I will admit here that there was some modification done to the background of this picture to erase the intrusive modernisms (21st century people in neon green shirts just seem to take away from the subject at hand, you know?), but the gist of the photo - my living history friends meeting such an important man in our nation's history - remains intact.

That's me on the right meeting one of my heroes, Benjamin Franklin. In the little time we spoke, this man taught me much on not only about one of the most profound of our founding fathers, but in becoming the person from the past in which we portray, whether that someone is well-known in history, or just a regular citizen.
Not too long ago I purchased a book called, "Eighteenth Century English as a Second Language - A Workbook and Series of Instructional CDs" by Cathleene Hellier, who is described as being a historian with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Department of Training and Historical Research.
The back of the book also tells us that this series of lessons has been designed to help historical interpreters and reenactors better understand the language of the period and sound more like the persons they portray. Lessons contain grammar, vocabulary, and conversational etiquette for all levels of society.
Please allow me to be un-period for a moment and say "How cool is this?" Yes, I am very excited about learning some of the vocabulary style of the colonial period and plan to incorporate it into my presentations, just as I have with my
verbiage of the 1860s. 
As with nearly everything worthwhile, it will be a slow process initially, and in most cases living historians will need to keep modern speech heavily flavored as to not turn any modern visitor off, but I believe the overall presentation does prove to be successful.
So far, so good.
It is all part of the experience.
If you plan to 'become' a famous person in history, it definitely helps to have some semblance of the person you are portraying, which Mr. Stark as Benjamin Franklin certainly does have with the original, as does the reenactor Lincoln pictured (Mr. Priebe) in comparison to the actual Lincoln.
And here we have Dr. Franklin, Sybil Ludington, and Paul Revere.
We can see Bob Stark is a shew in for Ben Franklin, but what about Larissa and I as our historical counterparts?
Well...since no one knows what Sybil Ludington actually looked like, Larissa has no problem there. But we do have the Copley painting of Paul Revere, and I look nothing like the man I portray. But it helps that most visitors are not as familiar with the portrait as they are of Franklin's or Lincoln's. I suppose as long as I have the knowledge of Revere's life and can tell his story in a truthful and lively manner, it doesn't really matter quite as much that we don't look alike.
And in my few years that I have been portraying Paul Revere has proven that I can do it, and do it fairly well, even though he and I don't share the same gene pool.
But learning the ways of those from the past through sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste has been a wonderful help and adventure for me, and once again I wanted to get more of a detailed feel for colonial life, so I went to the farm of a friend recently and did a sort of colonial photo shoot. Though the initial intention wasn't necessarily to be Paul Revere - my main course of thought was to get experience and a sense and understanding (and, of course, a few pictures of me as a colonial on a horse) - it just so happened that the Paul Revere similarities was the way it turned out.
And the following pictures are the result:
Yes, it's October in the photos here, not April.

The horse I was riding - Anastasia - was old and well-fed. Her get-up-and-go was, shall we say, a little on the relaxed side.
That's okay - no complaints from me. I am very appreciative of having the opportunity to ride!

A tale of two (pony) tails. 
Well, mine is actually called a 'queue' (French for tail), or 'cue.' The queue/cue was a very popular hair style for men in the 1770s, either on wigs or with their own natural hair. 
Mine is all natural. 
As you know, I try to take my living history as far as I am able, and this hobby is the main reason I've been keeping my hair longer - so I can wear it properly as a colonial. My wife asks me nearly weekly, "When are you going to get your hair cut?" But I really don't plan to get it cut anytime soon. To be totally honest, I like long hair. Back in the 1970s and 80s I had hair to the middle of my back, so this is just me being me...letting my freak flag fly!
An interesting side note here: in David Hackett Fischer's excellent book, "Paul Revere's Ride," a first-hand account written by Mary Hartwell about the aftermath of the Battle of Lexington and Concord notes that the men of her family "hitched the oxen to the cart and went down below the house and gathered up (five dead British soldiers), one in a brilliant uniform, whom I supposed to be an officer. His hair was tied up in a cue."
In this photo I am carrying a lantern of the same style of which was used during the 18th century. Having not actually ridden a horse in quite a while, I was happy to still be able to control the horse with one hand while holding the lantern with the other.

Though many 19th and 20th century artist's renditions show Paul Revere carrying a lantern on his most famous of rides, David Hackett Fischer's wonderfully detailed book says nothing about a lantern being carried at all, and, instead, hints that he was guided by the bright moonlight that shone on the road. 
But that's okay - many a-colonial man did travel with a lantern. 

The weather turned a little cool so I threw on my cloak.
Well...okay - that ain't exactly true. I just thought the cloak might add a bit to the photo. It kind of does, don't you think?

As a living historian, it felt indescribable to be wearing the clothing I had on while riding Anastasia the Horse. It gave me a smidgen of an idea of what my colonial ancestors felt, which is my whole point in living history anyways - to become part of the past.

It was a neat experience to ride a horse this way - one that I hope to do again. Maybe I can get a few of us together and create a colonial horse scenario. 
Okay...that's now on my bucket list.

And here is a short video clip of me clomping along on the horse. I loved it!

Let's add one more thing to the five senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste, (and experience):
Earlier I spoke of how having knowledge of the minute details of daily life is so important in bringing the past to life. I'd like to expand a bit further on this subject and explain to you a bit more of how one of our best immersion experiences, the Christmas at the Fort reenactment, works and of how strong an effort we put into it to make it seem real.
Or, mind-travel, if you prefer.
When we, as living historians, are participating in this event, we need to believe in our own minds that this is real. For if we half-at it and come off as if we're doing this to 'entertain' the visitors, that can be projected in such a way that we are play-acting. But if we believe that during the time we are actually the people we pertain to be, it can be magical.
~Christmas Eve 1863~
Reading aloud from Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol" by the light of an oil lamp for our Christmas Eve entertainment.
Was it real...?
There were these moments when we actually felt like we were there
Time travel...mind travel...whatever it is, it works, but only when everything is aligned and "the moon and the stars call the order."
Of course, having living historians with the same mindset as you can make all the difference in the world of time.
And that, my good friends, is how me and my fellow living historian "family" accomplishes time-travel. It's work...but it works!

A final word:
accounting for a modern camera at a living history excursion:
Most of the living history I do does involve the visiting public; it's *almost* impossible to do without modern visitors unless you have money to rent a historic building for personal use, and that's nearly impossible to do as well.
That doesn't mean the art of mind-travel cannot be done well; it only means that one learns to have a blind eye to all things modern.
Obviously there was a modern photographer at the events in this posting, otherwise you wouldn't have seen the pictures. Depending on the situation, I try to do posed pictures either before immersion begins, and/or after it ends.
I will also, many times, work out something with a friend to take pictures with my camera without being too intrusive, therefore allowing me to continue my time in the past without interruption.
And then there is being lucky enough to have many modern friends with their own cameras come as visitors and take shots as well.
Of course, as a last resort (when something very special is going on and you want to capture it for posterity) - and only if okay'd by the others ahead of time - I have pulled my camera out, doing my best to not have anyone see me, take a quick picture (no flash), then quickly hide it away.
So now you know how I got most of the pictures.

Please treat this posting as a guide for the reenactor who would like to take the step into another realm of our hobby - into the world of living history. By no means do I claim to be an authority in this genre; it is a way that I found which works for me, and maybe some of the newer reenactors - and even a few more seasoned veterans of the hobby - might enjoy hearing my take on accomplishing the closest thing to actual time-travel.
We all have our own ways - this one works for me best.

Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.

Links to the past:
Paul Revere's Ride by David Hackett Fischer
To read about our Christmas at the Fort immersion, click HERE
To read about some of my colonial excursions, click HERE and HERE and HERE
To read about Christmas in colonial times click HERE
To read about some of my Civil War Civilian excursions, click HERE, HERE, and HERE

~You know how in movies where they'll tag something on to the very end of the credits - like a comedy bit or something - for the folks who sit in the theater until the entire film is over?
Think of this picture as one of those 'after the credits' ending:
Picture proof that we were there...
Yes - that is me, Patty, Larissa, my daughter, my son, and Mrs. Cook all hanging out with the Firestones in an original photo from the 1870s.
It truly is a photograph from 140 years ago.
So how...?

Until next time, see you in time.

~   ~   ~

1 comment:

Cincinnatus said...

Great photos of some excellent vignettes and impressions!